Nineteenth Century Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, is believed to have coined the popular quote, “History repeats itself.” In fact, he said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it," which does not mean that history will inevitably repeat itself, but the chance of repeating a mistake is likely if you don’t read, discuss and contemplate on events that happened long ago.
We must attempt to recognize our own age as the accumulation of previous ages and the ability to look profoundly at the passage of time and recognize that people from the past did not necessarily behave as we do today. In other words, we must not entirely detach ourselves from the past, but look at events as they really are. The underlying principle of historical work is that the subject of our inquiry must not be wrenched from its setting. It is the interrelated conditions in which something or someone exists or occurs—the act or process of weaving all parts into a whole that gives meaning to character and identity. Thus, historical awareness allows for recognition of historical processes and their contexts—the relationship between events and people over time which endows them with greater significance than just an emotional response to the past.
In July 2008, I was asked to participate at the Little Compton Historical Society’s Portraits in Time exhibit honoring five of Tiverton’s most notable residents. Awashonks, the sqwa-sachem of the Sakonnet Indians was one of the featured displays. She was both King Philip’s Cousin and friend to Colonel Benjamin Church. When the outbreak of the King Philip’s War erupted in June 1675, Church was living on the frontier commanding small detachments of troops. His first act was to dissuade Awashonks from joining the Wampanoags. Church then enlisted a number of Indian allies, which may have included some of Awashonks’ warriors in his force, and with their assistance was able to capture Philip’s wife and son. They were both sent to Bermuda and sold as slaves.
Taking refuge in a swamp near Mount Hope (Bristol, Rhode Island), Philip had been ambushed by Church on August 12, 1676, and shot by Alderman, one of Church’s Indians. Since that time, Benjamin Church has been viewed by his descendants and by other early immigrant families as Little Compton’s renowned Indian fighter and village hero. New England Indians on the other hand, view him in a much more negative light by evaluating his treatment of Native Americans that ultimately led to the collision of cultures which set the pattern for almost all future relations between white men and red men in English America.
For over 15 years I have presented programs educating children and adults about the history and culture of the Native people of Southern New England, which included discussions about early Colonial Americans. Discourse was always professional, intellectual and non-judgmental in content and as a result, made me one of the most requested speakers at schools, libraries, museums and other venues in Rhode island and elsewhere.
As mentioned, the Little Compton Historical Society had asked if I would assist them in their programming by setting up a table of Native American artifacts and if I could lend them my Indian Regalia for their Awashonks exhibit. In the course of the afternoon’s activities, I was introduced to Mr. Fred Bridge, who revealed, much to my surprise that he was a sixth generation descendent of Colonel Benjamin Church! I was momentarily flabbergasted by the revelation, not quite knowing how to feel or respond. A man whose ancestor I was raised to hate stood before me now. The coincidence seemed monumental. Although he seemed slightly hesitant while regarding me, I too struggled with the weight of my cultural and emotional baggage.
After some good natured conversational jousting and sparring, we both came to appreciate each other’s histories. By the end of the afternoon we became more relaxed with each other and acknowledged a common humanity between us and we each seemed to recognize the untenability of holding each other accountable for the actions of our ancestors. However, efforts of reconciliation can meet opposition due to an undeveloped, “primitive” manifestation of a colonized mind; where the colonized and the colonizer do not desire truth and reconciliation, but have a vested interest in the maintenance of division. In addition, the failure of governmental and tribal leadership in the last century and now the twenty-first century have not fully delivered for those wanting change. Being born into a feud against the other perpetuates cultural opposition as a means to preserve individual or group purpose, identity and worth. The loss of social organization could prove catastrophic as it creates social, political, cultural and personal challenges uncomfortable to explore.
Our meeting was so inspirational we thought it might be a good idea to collaborate on the creation of an educational program based on this very meeting. Instead of maintaining irreconcilable differences, the program would highlight the possibility of reconciliation between two cultures that had been at odds for over half a millennium. I found myself at the crossroads of a path that could lead me either back into the past or take unknown steps into the future. I chose the future.
In order to move forward, we cannot continue to rage against past transgressions, for it only leads to self-victimization. History tells us that Native American populations dramatically declined over the past centuries because of the myth that people with certain phenotypes are less human or “civilized.” Previous case studies on mixed-race groups for example, the Narragansett, Pequot, Wamapanoag as well as individual accounts echo the pervasiveness of discrimination. If we shift our focus from our rigid, narrow and habitual points of view, we will embrace situations in new ways so that they become more workable.
It is critical to understand that the conquest of the natives of this country was based on a chain of flawed thinking: first being religion, where 15th century documents, such as the papal bulls, show the papacy played a role in the genocidal onslaught that impacted millions of indigenous people. Early explorers and then conquerors brought diseases and then guns, enslavement, land-grabs, racial discrimination and re-education. Many of these tools of conquest were and still are, being used today.
When presenting this writing I was asked, “How come the voices of certain Elders were not present in the text?” My response was “the old regime was cloaked in anger and resentment and had to be overthrown.” An exhibit at Plimoth Plantation called “Irreconcilable Differences” is an example of the rage that perpetuates a “where-to-when” everybody got stuck. Another example comes from one of our communities most prominent Indian scholars “ If you don’t marry your own people you will disappear,” signifies they too have bought into classifying people by blood and not by culture. My grandmother’s reasons for remaining silent about her identity also exemplify a conquered mind, a path I was destined to walk.
This writing, however, has allowed me to embrace the multiracial identities of Native America. I’ve come to realize blood mixing does not dilute my Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) heritage because historically our identities were not based on race. Instead we were taught to honor all our relations, including multiple ones. My children, as well as other children of mixed-race Indian heritage, will be taught not to accept someone else’s definition of who they are, no matter what their origins and will not allow a wedge to be driven between their traditions and their identity. Dennis Hazard, Ninigret Descendant best sums it up by saying, “I know who I am. I have the blood of kings and queens running through my veins.”
Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.